Technique: Digital Photo Collages
Sometimes even the widest angle lens isn't wide enough to capture the scene in front of you. Or even if it is, maybe the final exposure doesn't match your experience of scanning a wonderful view and focussing in on small details, as they make up the larger picture.
That's where photo collages come in. A collage (sometimes also called a 'joiner') is a large photographic image made up of a number of separate exposures of the same scene, joined together. How you shoot these individual pictures, and how you join them defines the type of collage you're going to make. You can go naturalistic - where you'd aim to minimise or hide the joins between the separate images, or you can play around and produce a more impressionistic effect. British artist David Hockney is one of the most famous exponents of the technique and you can see some of his work here.
|I hiked up to this mountain lake with a superzoom camera, but its widest focal length of 24mm (equivalent) just wasn't wide enough. This image, taken at 24mm, is boring and gives no sense of the scale of the landscape.|
Personally, if I want to create a panoramic image with no joins, I tend to reach for one of the countless compact cameras that offer some variation on the now-common 'sweep panorama' function. But if I want to explore the feeling of being somewhere and looking at a certain view, I'll make a collage. Here's a quick guide to my approach - if you like the results, why not experiment with your own? All you'll need is a software package that allows you to create image files with multiple layers. I'm using Adobe Photoshop CS5 for this example.
Step 1: Exposures
Like all good first steps (well, most anyway) the first step in this technique is the easiest. You've found the scene you want to capture, you've got a camera in your hand, so take a deep breath and prepare to take some pictures. But before you do, set your camera to the JPEG format and select a low resolution. 1MP is enough for the individual shots, given that you're going to create a much larger final image.
Once this is done, get shooting. You want to capture every little detail of this view so don't be afraid to zoom in on small scene elements as well as getting wider-angle shots that include more of the view. Shoot plenty of exposures in both horizontal and vertical formats, and for a more natural look in the final joiner, make sure you take all of the pictures at the same exposure in either manual mode or using exposure lock. Don't be afraid to shoot lots of pictures - you don't have to use them all.
Step 2: Resizing and importing
Now that you've got back to a computer it's time to load your images into Photoshop and get started. Assuming you shot them in a low resolution mode, you can just drag your files straight into the program and skip the rest of this step, but if you made the mistake of shooting at full resolution, you will need to resize your shots first. If you don't, you might end up with two problems - your computer might crash as Photoshop attempts to open multiple large files at the same time, and even if it doesn't, your final canvas will be absolutely enormous.
There are lots of ways to resize images in a batch, and we published a guide to batch operations in Photoshop here. I was lazy when I shot my exposures and forgot to set a small output resolution, so I needed to sort that out. I've used Adobe's Camera Raw plugin to resize my images though.
Step 3: The Big Picture (Part 1)
At this point you've got a load of files open in Photoshop but nowhere to put them. The next step then is to make a new document which will serve as the 'pinboard' onto which you'll arrange your pictures as we move towards producing the final image.
Once this is done, simply drag your resized photographs onto the document using the move tool (shortcut key: V) until you're looking at one document, with many different layers.
Step 4: The Big Picture (Part 2)
Now it's time to start arranging your individual images. With the move tool (shortcut key: V) selected, make sure that in the top toolbar of your Photoshop window you have 'auto select' checked and 'layers' selected. This will allow you to manipulate each layer of your document directly by just clicking and dragging. With this done, let's start clicking and dragging!
Step 4: Fine tuning
Now you should have a document that looks something like the scene you wanted to capture, but it's probably pretty chaotic and not that attractive to look at. So now you need to get creative and fine-tune things. This stage can take hours, but as with anything creative, there's no right or wrong way to do it.
|Try experimenting with increasing and decreasing the size of individual images, shuffling them via the 'layers' palette to get the back-to-front alignment how you like it, and even cropping individual pictures and rotating them.|
You'll probably find that to get a semi-natural alignment between the different shots you'll need to rotate the peripheral layers anyway, and this is easy using the 'free transform' tool (Edit>Free Transform). You can resize individual layers using this tool too. Just hold down shift as you push and pull the edges of the layer and everything will stay in proportion.
As well as size and rotation can also adjust the exposure of individual layers if you like. If some of your pictures are near-duplicates of others, or just don't fit into the final image, feel free just to push them out to the edges of the document or delete them as layers from within the layers palette.
Step 5: Final Touches
Hopefully you should now be looking at an image which captures your vision of the scene in front of you when you shot all those photographs in step 1. To finish up, how about experimenting with different colors for your background layer? Black or white are the obvious ones but there's no need to stop there.
Once you're happy, I'd recommend saving your document as a .PSD file. This will preserve all of the layers so you can come back to it in the future and tweak things more if you want to. Once this is done, and you have a .PSD safely on file somewhere, flatten the image (Layer>Flatten) and crop to the border that you like, using the crop tool. Then save and close, print, publish or just sit back and admire your handiwork.
Photo collages are pretty versatile. Here are some other examples which might give you some ideas about when and where you might want to employ the technique.
|It isn't just landscapes that can benefit from the wider field of view of a photo joiner. It's a fun way of capturing interiors, too.|
Barnaby Britton is Reviews Editor of dpreview.com. You can see a selection of his after-hours work at www.photoinsensitive.com.